What we’re watching in 2023

It may no longer feel like it, ten and a bit long days in, but 2023 is only just getting started, and the stories that will shape the year ahead are still coming into view. For the first installment of a new weekly interview feature in our daily newsletter, The Media Today, CJR’s staff identified the platforms, problems, and trends they’ll be watching in the media world as the year progresses, from Twitter and Substack to major news organizations’ coverage of marginalized bodies and fentanyl.

 

Kyle Pope, editor in chief and publisher: I remain keenly interested in what journalism looks like post-Twitter. Twitter isn’t dead, despite some recent high-profile journalistic departures. But it is transformed, and not in a good way. And leaving is the easy part. How do newsrooms get the attention and readership they need for their work now? How do they engage their audiences in a compelling way? How do they ensure their work is relevant and noticed by the people who need to see it? None of us wants to do great journalism that no one reads. While it’s true that Twitter has been adept at creating an illusion of audience, that at least was something. Now we all need to think creatively and purposefully about who our audience should be and how to get to them. I’ll be watching out for newsrooms that are cracking that code. 

Betsy Morais, managing editor: At the end of 2020, Clio Chang wrote a great piece for CJR about Substack. In some ways, her story was timeless. (“In a broken industry,” she wrote, “even a little agency can start to feel like control.”) Still, it was of a moment, and our view of the same terrain seems different now. Emily Atkin, who runs a climate Substack called HEATED (which she wrote about for CJR, also in 2020), just announced that she’s hired a reporter to work with her. At Puck, individual newsletter-writers are being packaged together (Julia Ioffe, Tina Nguyen, and Tara Palmeri are now “The Best & The Brightest”). A number of journalists who’d left traditional news organizations to forge one path or another have lately found their way back to collaboration, editing, bundling—something fairly similar to where they started. As the year goes by, I’ll be curious to see how much these newish ventures feel like returns to the status quo, and to what extent we’ve internalized any of the lessons of the past few years. As Chang wrote, “Writing is often considered an individualistic enterprise, but journalism is a collective endeavor.”

Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer: I’ll be watching how digital journalists and influencers cover the ongoing story of crypto’s decline, including people like Molly White, who started a site called Web 3 Is Going Just Great (…and is definitely not an enormous grift that’s pouring lighter fluid on our already smoldering planet). The Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz covered something similar here, writing about how influencers dominated coverage of the recent implosion of the crypto exchange FTX. I’ll also be following the transformation and/or decline of Twitter under Elon Musk and its impact on the media, whether distributed or open systems like Mastodon grow more popular as a result, and the potential flaws of these systems. And I’m interested in the decline of Google and Meta’s advertising dominance, and how that affects the news media.

Jem Bartholomew, reporting fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism: One thing I’ll be watching is how politicians continue to build alternative media ecosystems that bypass traditional news publishers. In many ways, this is not new: funding from Koch-aligned donors has been pumped through a libertarian media pipeline for decades. But recent times have seen an intensification of this trend—whether it’s Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro or the Metric Media network that we’ve been tracking at the Tow Center. TikTok has become a political battleground, too, as micro-influencers supported by organizations such as Turning Point USA put their talking points under the scrolling thumbs of Gen Z. In 2023, a year with no nationwide elections in the US, both right-wing and liberal actors will be maneuvering onto a war footing ahead of the presidential race.

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Jon Allsop, chief writer of The Media Today: I’ll be watching how major news organizations continue to center (or don’t) threats to democracy. After Trump tried to steal the 2020 election, mainstream democracy coverage—while far from perfect, as I noted often in CJR’s newsletter—took steps forward, both in terms of urgency and scope, culminating with last year’s midterms. It’s tempting, and to some extent justified, to find relief in the results; the most ardent election deniers running to oversee America’s election machinery lost, after all. But the threat has not disappeared; for one, scores of Republicans who voted to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss are now in the majority in the House of Representatives, including Kevin McCarthy, the (just about) new Speaker. And McCarthy’s painful path to that job also pointed to more routine dysfunction with the way politics works: as I put it last year, “saving democracy requires more of the press than guarding against the most explicit immediate threats to it; it requires scrutiny of how a whole political system is performing what should be its basic functions.” The mainstream press should harness its hard-won focus on democracy to these ends, rather than letting it dissipate because the worst didn’t come to pass in 2022—while bearing in mind that the worst could yet come to pass in the future.

Feven Merid, staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow: Press-freedom struggles are, unfortunately, always something to look out for, especially on the back of a year that felt particularly violent: I’m thinking of the more than fifty journalists and media workers arrested for covering protests in Iran, the journalists killed in the cross fire of war in Ukraine, the killing of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the journalists living in exile after reporting on the war in Tigray. Last year, CJR investigated the cases of murdered journalists in Mexico, Haiti, and the Netherlands. I’m hoping that we will expand our coverage of press threats in the year ahead, as well as look at the savvy ways in which journalists are navigating these risks. 

Mercy Orengo, Delacorte fellow: The media has been one of the sectors that has been affected by the tough economic times. In the past few years, many media businesses have folded, creating news deserts that, in turn, are a threat to democracy. With journalists constantly on edge about what the future holds for their industry, the media’s watchdog role is on shaky ground, creating more room for disinformation and misinformation to thrive. I will be watching these trends, and checking how some of the outlets that were set up in an attempt to save the industry are faring. 

Emily Russell, Delacorte fellow: Early last year, murmurs of an impending recession surfaced in the news, but it was unclear just how seriously these rumors and anxieties should be taken. Early headlines in 2023 indicated that some recession fears are becoming reality (tech layoffs abound, the housing market is stagnating). At the same time, others reported economic stability (unemployment is dropping, inflation is stabilizing). Given the complexities underlying these contrasting headlines, I’ll be watching how journalists grapple with covering the economy, both domestically and globally. (CJR will have a story on this up soon, so stay tuned for that.) I’ll also be paying attention to which economic indicators journalists rely on, which they ignore, and how economic reporting influences market performance.

Pesha Magid, Delacorte fellow: Globally, moral panics have long been a political tool that authoritarian governments have used to frame themselves as moral guardians of the public. That trend was turbocharged last year, from the right in the US stoking fears about trans people and critical race theory to Vladimir Putin’s screed against LGBTQ rights in the West in a major speech to the ongoing entrapment of LGBTQ people in Egypt. Such rhetoric has turned into laws that ban discussion of LGBTQ rights in the US, Russia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Brazil. Moral panics are often stoked by the media, including major liberal outlets in the US that have published articles endlessly debating basic issues like access to bathrooms. But this particular, politically expedient brand of fearmongering around gender and sexuality is a global story. I will be paying attention to the ways in which language is mirrored across borders and countries as the year progresses. 

Amanda Darrach, CJR contributor and audio producer/editor: We are riding a groundswell of stories that spotlight marginalized bodies. It is a moment that presents the media with the opportunity to make 2023 a real inflection point in its treatment of the most vulnerable. Can we learn from medical activists and healthcare journalists who are gaining prominence on social media? They offer insight into systemic discrimination within medical schools and hospitals, as well as maternal healthcare deserts, both in low-income areas and within the prison system. Will some abortion-policy coverage continue to exploit vulnerable sources? Then there’s coverage of sexual assault. This year will bring a surge in legal action in such cases, especially in New York State; how will journalists on this beat treat survivors, especially children? What about editorial decisions on coverage of the war in Ukraine, where photos intended to show how bad the conditions really are can clash with the imperative to respect and humanize those suffering and dying? I’ll be watching for similar dynamics on the pandemic, climate crisis, housing, and immigration beats, too.

Mike Laws, copy editor: The Times ran a feature recently on the increasing presence of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, in the US supply of illicit fentanyl. Not only does “tranq,” as xylazine is known colloquially, cause horrific lesions, abscesses, and ulcers, it’s not an opiate, and thus doesn’t respond to naloxone, which gravely complicates the situation for paramedics. Efforts are underway to schedule xylazine so that it’s harder to obtain, but the situation will almost certainly get worse before it gets better. A cursory Google indicates that a couple of other outlets have picked up on the story, but I’m wondering what kind of traction this will get even if the crisis does rage on unabated. There’s bound to be some fentanyl fatigue by now, especially after the laughably sensationalized stories over Halloween about so-called “rainbow fentanyl.”


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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.